By Abeer Mohammed
A decision by Iraq’s Sunni Arab political bloc to end its boycott of parliament has been welcomed as a step towards halting a political crisis that sparked fears of fresh sectarian conflict when it erupted in December.
The Sunni-backed Iraqiya list had refused to attend parliament sessions since mid-December, complaining that it had been excluded from decision-making.
Tensions worsened when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought the removal of his Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.
Iraqiya bloc ministers also decided to boycott cabinet meetings. (See Conflict Fears as Iraqi Power Balance Crumbles.)
The political battle coincided with a series of attacks which resulted in mostly Shia casualties, raising concerns of a return to the bloody sectarian warfare that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
But this week the Sunni coalition, which won a majority in 2010’s parliamentary election but was unable to form a coalition, announced it would return to parliament and would also consider attending cabinet meetings again.
Mayson al-Damloji, an Iraqiya spokeswoman, told reporters that the list had “made its decision to return to parliamentary sessions in order to discuss important issues for citizens, like the budget of 2012”.
The budget needs the approval of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish representatives.
Hamid al-Mutlaq, a senior member of Iraqiya, told IWPR that its political partners had now shown “good will” to cooperate. He said Iraqiya had received calls from various Iraqi parties asking it to come back to the political process, although the prime minister’s State of Law bloc was not among those he named.
Iraqiya, which holds 91 seats in Iraq’s 325-seat council of representatives, hopes to be rewarded for its decision to resume participation in government.
“We are showing good will, and we expect a similar gesture from the government in return,” Mutlaq said, adding in an apparent hint that the boycott tactic still remained an option, “If we feel that this gesture has not been taken the proper way, we will not keep to it.”
An Iraqiya source told IWPR on condition of anonymity that the list expected Maliki to drop the request he made for the dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who had called him a “dictator” in a media interview.
Other political actors also welcomed Iraqiya’s return, expressing hopes that this step would lead to more stability.
The Sadrists, a key Shia bloc which supports Maliki, issued a statement in which they hailed Iraqiya’s return as “a necessary step” to maintain the processes of legislation and government.
Politicians from the Kurdish region, where Hashemi has taken refuge, also praised Iraqiya’s move.
“I hope all politicians will welcome this national list properly, in the way it deserves,” Kurdish lawmaker Sardar Abdullah told IWPR. “I would like its return to the assembly to be a step towards overcoming our nation’s crises.”
But members of Maliki’s State of Law list said that while they were happy Iraqiya had ended its boycott, the whole affair had harmed the Sunni bloc’s credibility.
Saad al-Mutalabi, from the prime minister’s party, told IWPR, “Their return is definitely warmly welcomed, but how can we trust them? We cannot count on them – they might walk out any time.”
Mutalabi, who serves as an advisor to the prime minister, also insisted that Iraqiya had been given no guarantees.
“We have not promised them anything in return for coming back,” he said. “It was their decision to boycott, and it’s also their decision to return.”
The current government was only formed after an eight-month political deadlock with the passing of a US-backed deal based on a Shia-Sunni-Kurdish partnership.
The day before Iraqiya announced its return, American vice-president Joseph Biden told its leaders of “the importance of resolving outstanding issues through the political process”.
Experts warn that another Sunni mass exit might cause the whole agreement to collapse.
“People will lose faith in democracy if they see their elected representatives walk out,” Ibraheim al-Sumaidaei, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said. “Iraqiya has the option of preserving its position as a list representative of a wide segment of Iraqi people, and to work from the inside of this process on changing things it dislikes.
“Boycotters are always the losers, but they will not be the only ones – unfortunately, the public will share that loss.”
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR editor for Iraq. This article was published at IWPR’s ICR Issue 386.